Fate of wild red wolves still in limbo

Endangered red wolves are kept in captivity at the Sewee Visitor and Education Center in Awendaw.

The endangered red wolf might not ever roam again in the Lowcountry wild, and the wolves in the wild in North Carolina will continue to dwindle, at least until the end of the year.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Tuesday announced it was suspending any new releases to the wild from its captive wolf population at a North Carolina refuge. Officials said they will wait until the end of the year for more research findings before deciding the future of a tenuous, controversial effort to reintroduce the native species in the Southeast, where it was hunted almost to extinction as a varmint.

The announcement bought the wildlife service a little more time to try to reconcile landholder concerns, as well as a dispute about the species that could remove it from the Endangered Species list: Some animal geneticists say the wolf is no longer distinct from the coyote and can’t maintain a separate population in the wild.

But conservation interests said suspension is no more than a delaying tactic to allow the wild population to die a slow death.

“I don’t honestly think ‘six months’ is about science and workshops and education. I think it’s about putting off a decision that would open the service up to litigation. I think they are waiting for the population to no longer be viable,” said Tara Zuardo, wildlife attorney of the Animal Welfare Institute.

The announcement came on the heels of a census that dropped the estimated number of wolves in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge wild to 50 to 75, down from an earlier 75 to 100 estimate. A number of wolves roaming off the refuge have been shot, and the service in June gave a private landholder near the refuge permission to shoot a wolf that had been frequenting that property.

The red wolf once was the Lowcountry’s own, an animal as big as a German shepherd that moves with a slinking feral grace. Shot as a nuisance for generations, it was pronounced extinct in the wild in 1980, when only 14 captive wolves were known to be alive.

The recovery program was launched in 1987, largely as a wild breeding program at Bull’s Island in the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge north of Charleston. Now, the Alligator River refuge in eastern North Carolina is the only place in the world where the wolves still run free.

A handful of captive wolves are at the Cape Romain refuge visitor’s center in Awendaw, one of a few off-site holding facilities.

Conservationists have pushed to expand the reintroduction effort on other federal lands. Bull’s Island, where the recovery started, was one of the places under consideration by Fish and Wildlife biologists, who were looking at placing breeding pairs of wolves along remote East Coast islands.

But the program has been handcuffed by small budgets and staff — a shortage of both curtailed the Bull’s Island effort in 2005. And it’s being opposed by the landholders near the Alligator River refuge, who say that wolves roaming off the federal refuge property are depleting livestock and game animals like deer.

Also, smaller wolves sometimes interbreed with the coyote, producing an animal that’s been called the coywolf. The hybrid is a larger coyote with more of the wolf’s jaw — capable of bringing down larger prey — and with potentially a lot less of the wolf’s wariness about living near inhabited areas like suburbs.

Cindy Dohner, the service’s Southeast regional director, conceded that the extra six months gives staff a second chance to “get the science right” and rebuild trust with angry landholders who simply want the wolves gone.

“We recognize too that there were misunderstandings,” she said. “And we did not always meet the expectations we set. Now, we need to do a thorough and deliberate evaluation of the red wolf program.”

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